AI in the architecture industry has provoked much debate in recent years - yet it seems like very few of us know exactly what it is or why it has created this storm of emotions. There are professionals researching AI who know more about the field than I do, but I have hands-on experience using AI and algorithms in my design over the past 10 years through various projects. This is one of the challenges that our field faces. How can we make practical use of these new tools?
Many people have reached out to me claiming that AI could not do their job and that being an architect is so much more than just composing a plan drawing or calculating the volume of a building envelope. They are right. But having said that, there is no reason not to be open to the possibility that AI can help us design even better buildings. There are a lot of tasks that are much better solved with computation than manually, and vice versa. In general, if we are able to reduce a problem to numbers or clearly define what we are trying to solve, AI will probably be able to solve it. If we are looking for subjective opinions or emotions, it might be trickier for an AI to help. Or to be more precise, it might be trickier for us to provide the AI with the right tools to subjectively analyze our designs.
When we talk about AI within the field of architecture it often boils down to optimization. Where can we find more sellable square meters or how can we get more daylight into dark apartments? A bigger building and more windows might be the answer, but what other parameters might be affected by this?
Where there are a lot of parameters at stake that need to be weighed against each other, AI can help us a lot. Millions of scenarios can be evaluated, and the best selected in the same amount of time that it takes for us to ride the subway to work. Our AI will present us with the ultimate suggestion based on the parameters we provided.
What if we forgot something? As soon as we start to optimize, we have to consider that the result will be no better than the parameters, training sets, and preferences we provided the AI with for solving the task. If we were to ask a thousand different people “Who’s the better architect, Zaha Hadid or Le Corbusier?” we would probably get an even split of answers motivated by a thousand different reasons, since the question is highly subjective. In this case, there is no right or wrong, but if we asked who had designed the highest number of buildings, we could get a correct answer. Even if the answer from your AI is the correct one and mathematically optimal, you must consider if the question itself was right.
Another important part of optimization is the question of how to weigh different features against each other. Is Gross Floor Area (GFA) more important than daylight and if it is, how much more? This is a decision that the architect, the designer of the algorithm, or the client needs to decide. Humans have opinions, a specific taste, preferred style, and so on. AI does not.
Optimizing for maximum gross floor area in parallel with a daylight analysis will give you a certain result, but it might not be the same thing as designing a great building. Yet on the flip side, not being able to meet the client’s expectations for GFA or not being able to make an apartment inhabitable due to lack of light might result in no building at all.
AI presents many new opportunities for our profession, and I believe that the architect is harder to replace with AI than many other professions due to our job's subjective nature. The decisions we make to create great buildings often depend on opinions, and as a result there is no right or wrong. But I also believe that there are a lot of things we can improve on. We do not have to go as far as using AI: in many cases, we would benefit a lot from simple automation. There are many manual tasks performed by architects at the moment that has to be done to realize a project but do not add any value for the final product. If AI or automation can help us with these tasks, we can spend more time doing what we do best - which is designing great architecture, adding value to project inhabitants and our cities more widely.